Meet Dr. Antonio Castro: Team Doctor for Cuba and Son of Fidel
MLB reports: In part 3 of my impromptu 3-part feature on Cuban baseball, I am featuring Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, team doctor for the Cuban national team, Olympics and WBC. Dr. Castro, a top orthopedic surgeon in Cuba, just happens to be as well the son of Fidel Castro. Fact or fiction you may ask? Fact. The story of Castro is one for the baseball ages that I first stumbled upon during the 1996 edition of the World Baseball Classic that I will be sharing with you today.
One of my favorite parts of baseball is the obscure news items and pieces of information that are out of the “normal” realm. The Glenallen Hill arachnophobia incident, when Chuck Finley was attacked with a female pump by his then-wife Tawny Kitaen, Wade Boggs eating fried chicken before every game…well, you get the idea. One part of the 1996 Cuban WBC team really stuck out in my mind at the time. It seemed that every time Cuba was about to change a pitcher, the team manager for Cuba was always consulting with team physician. In fact, the doctor was talking to the players before and after at-bats, sitting down with pitchers between innings and jumping out of the dugout to be the first person to congratulate the players as Cuba scored each of their runs. This seemed a little strange in mind, so I tried to focus on the team doctor to get the scoop. Looking into the Cuban dugout on the television, I further noticed that the manager never left the team doctor’s side. The team doctor further seemed to enjoy talking on his cellular phone, even during games. By the time the 1999 edition of the classic was upon us, I figured out all the mystery behind Cuba’s team doctor. Only a one-word answer was required: Castro.
Dr. Antonio Castro Soto del Valle was apparently a great athlete in his day and played 3B in Cuba. Much his like father Fidel, a pitcher with a legendary curveball (See the book Castro’s Curveball, by Tim Wendel), baseball was always in Antonio’s blood. But apparently baseball was not in the boy’s future, much like his father before him. Fidel gave Antonio 2 choices: go to medical school or fight in the military. Wisely choosing medicine, Antonio grew to become one of Cuba’s top orthopedic surgeons. But his fame and popularity have evolved from his role as the physician for Cuba’s baseball national teams. Before games, Castro is often spotted signing autographs for fans and taking pictures. The connection between the name “Castro” and baseball is too rich for most diehard fans to pass up. Extending beyond medical capabilities, the issue on my mind is the true part that Antonio plays with Cuban baseball. Further, the extended role of Fidel on the team through his son. The likelihood of the Castro connection in managing and controlling the Cuban team is too high to ignore.
In all the interviews with Antonio Castro that I have read, he has always denied direct or indirect involvement in managing the Cuban baseball team. Further inquiries as to whether Fidel contacts him during games to advise the manager of the team has always been responded to with laughs and denials by Antonio. However, if you go back and watch any of the Cuban WBC games, the sight of Antonio on his cell during games and speaking with the manager throughout is one that seems very murky to say the least. If I had to hazard a professional guess, I would say that the Cuban manager was rarely if ever making a move without some form of feedback from Castro. To the naïve or unknowing viewer, Castro would appear to be a bench coach, hitting or pitching instructor based on his role in the dugout during games. I will admit that I made this mistake during my first observations of Castro. In fact, I can even recall watching Castro making a mound visit during a game to speak to the pitcher without any medical or injury concerns. Much pressure on any pitcher, as the feeling would be as significant as if Fidel himself was speaking to the pitcher.
Cuba is faced with a significant loss of talent to the MLB through defections. Articles I have read have indicated that based on his age (late 30s) and strong rapport with the players, Antonio Castro has the unofficial role of raising the morale of players and reducing defections. There has even been talk of Cuba moving to a system of taxing its players’ salaries in exchange for the permission to leave Cuba and pursue professional baseball in other countries. Antonio Castro in fact, is one of the leading proponents for this system. With the U.S./Cuba trade restrictions, such a system may be impossibility, but the mere fact that a Castro is leading the push for reform appears to be a good sign for Cuban baseball. Taking the above roles in baseball out of the equation, the hiring of Fidel Castro’s son as the team doctor for the Cuban national team boils down to a very simple logic and explanation in my mind. By seeing Antonio Castro in the dugout and field, the players cannot help but work harder and play stronger. Having Castro travelling with the team and in the hotels likely serves as a deterrent or hindrance for many players in their mind from defecting. Do I think that Fidel talks to his son during games on his cell phone? Without proof, I would answer without a doubt. Do I think that Antonio talking to the manager during games is in reality Fidel giving instructions to the manager? Absolutely. If Billy Beane was able to contact his managers during games as discussed in “moneyball”, I cannot see why Fidel would be any different. Cuba is ruled by a dictatorship, why should its baseball team be any different?
Don’t get me wrong. I love Cuban baseball to its absolute core. I would rather view a Cuba Series Nacionale game than an MLB game any day of the week. I am a passionate major leagues supporter, but Cuban baseball is played at a much different level and intensity. The players will do whatever it takes to pull out wins and the managers will not hold back any punches in the process. Cuba embodies everything that is professional baseball, especially through the Castro family. You may agree or disagree with Cuba’s political stances and approaches, but its game of baseball is still the same as ours. Only Cuban baseball is played in the same way the game was played in our neck of the woods many years ago, in an era long gone by. Dr. Antonio Castro is a similar throwback to the glory days of baseball, as was Ariel Pestano and the use of pitchers in Cuban baseball featured in the previous 2 parts featured on MLB reports. If you have never seen Antonio Castro before, check out some of his team’s games. Otherwise, I trust that you are now more familiar with Cuban baseball after reading these features and were able to see that there is more to the game and culture of baseball outside of the MLB.
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